How I spent My 1997 Summer Vacation

By Phil Johnson

(Illustrations by Melinda MacArthur)
(Mug Shot courtesy FBI)

12 August 1997

'm home from hospital now, but still reduced to lying on my back, with a lot of plumbing (drains, tubes, etc.) protruding from my stomach. I had my gall bladder removed 10 days ago, and complications from the surgery almost cost me my life. I'm hoping to be back to normal in a couple of weeks, but I probably won't be back to full strength for a month or so.
    Here's how all this came about:

    I spent all of July in India on a short-term missions trip with 9 high-schoolers from our church (including my 2 eldest sons). It was a wonderful experience for all of us, but the trip home became quite an adventure.
tabasco    When our Singapore Airlines jet left Tokyo on the final leg of our long flight home, the flight attendants came around with a drink service. I ordered tomato juice, and put several dashes of Tabasco in it. I had nothing with which to stir, so I just swished the drink in the cup, thinking it would mix. But Tabasco evidently floats, because my first mouthful of the beverage was almost pure pepper sauce.
    It burned horribly in my mouth, so I swallowed. Then it burned all the way down, until the burning seemed to lodge in my lower esophagus. I drank water, milk, and club soda. I ate rolls, consumed antacids, and tried everything I could, but the burning only got worse and worse.
    After about 5 hours of excruciating pain, I made up my mind that I would have Darlene take me to the emergency room as soon as we landed at LAX. At that time we were about 5 hours from our destination.
    I toughed it out for another 2 hours, and the pain was getting so bad that I briefly considered asking a flight attendant to see if there was a doctor on the flight. I decided to take a walk to the rear of the plane and see if that would help. We were now about 3 hours out of LA.
plane    While I was walking to the back, I felt the plane (a 747 big top) suddenly slow and bank to the left. The pilot came on the PA system immediately: "Ladies and gentlemen we are having a problem and are going to have to divert this flight to Vancouver. We need everyone to return to their seats and empty all the luggage out of the overhead bins."
    That sounded sinister to me, so I asked a flight attendant if the "problem" was a mechanical problem, or something like a bomb threat. He answered me frankly: "It's a bomb threat."
bomb    So after briefly deliberating about whether or not this was a serious threat, I used the phone in the airplane to call Darlene and tell her not to meet us at LAX. I explained that there was a bomb threat, and that we would be landing at Vancouver instead of Los Angeles. I told her I was inclined to think the threat was a hoax, but if not, I wanted her to know I loved her, and I wanted a chance to say goodbye. I also had her talk to Jeremiah and Jed. We did not mention to her that I was in such severe pain.
    I calculated that we had less than an hour before landing at Vancouver, but the crew turned off the navigation map, so that we did not know precisely where we were. The plane flew for another 2 hours, then 3, and I knew that was too much flying for Vancouver. It was nearly our scheduled arrival time for LAX already. So I asked the flight attendant if plans had changed, and were we landing at LAX anyway. This time he lied. He told me we would be landing at Vancouver.
    The bomb threat was a distraction from the pain, but I was still having severe abdominal distress anyway. So I was glad when I finally felt the plane slowing to land. I looked out the window and saw palm trees. I realized this was LA after all.
    The plane landed and parked at the extreme west end of the runway, where there are large sand dunes. They unloaded us onto buses and announced that we would be held indefinitely, until the FBI could interview everyone on the flight. After a couple of hours on the buses (these were tarmac buses, without seats, so we were kept standing the whole time), they brought us to the Bradley International Terminal and herded us into a large holding area they had prepared. They passed out orange juice and milk and light refreshments (I had milk, still vainly hoping it would quell the pain).
    And they told us it would be a long wait. The FBI wanted to interrogate every passenger and take handwriting samples from everyone. (The bomb threat had come in the form of handwritten notes on airsickness bags, left in the lavatories.) An airport official told me we might be held at the airport until the next morning.
    I mentioned that I was in severe pain and needed to see a doctor, and asked if they could expedite things for such a medical emergency. The official told me coldly, "Not unless it is a matter of life and death." I did not realize it at the time, but it was a matter of life and death.
    I lay down on the hard floor and slept for about an hour. When I awoke, the pain had diminished somewhat, so I was relieved. I have discovered since that my gall bladder probably perforated at that point, and so there was some immediate sense of relief. But the gall bladder was so seriously infected—even gangrenous—by that time, that the infection was already spreading through the area.
    After a few more hours of hassle, we finally convinced airline officials that our group should be put through the interview process immediately, since we were traveling with several minors whose worried parents were anxiously awaiting word from them. So we were ushered to the front of the FBI line. We were all interrogated; we gave handwriting samples; we had mug shots taken; and we had our fingerprints recorded. Now we all have FBI arrest records on file.
    The kids all thought the whole experience was pretty cool. And I would have thought so too, if I were not in so much pain.
    After a brief time in customs, we finally got out of the airport. I greeted Darlene (and Jonathan, our youngest son, who did not make the trip to India), and we began the drive home. It was great to be finally reunited with Darlene, but by now the pain was coming back in fury, so I asked her to stop at the pharmacist and get some Maalox. I chugged as much Maalox as I could, but it did no good whatsoever, and by the time I had showered and begun to unpack, I knew I would not sleep at all that night.
    So I asked Darlene to take me to the emergency room.
    After a few tests, they admitted me to the hospital and informed me that I would have surgery: laparoscopic cholecystectomy—to remove my gall bladder. The surgeon would be Dr. Philippe Quilici—one of the world's foremost experts in laparoscopic surgery. (He has a great Web site, too— an online laparoscopic manual.)
    About 12 hours elapsed between my going to the emergency room and the surgery. By then, I think the gall bladder must have been perforated for nearly 24 hours.
    The surgery went well, except that it took longer than normal because of the severity of the infection and scattered gall stones. As I noted, the gall bladder itself was gangrenous. Dr. Quilici told Darlene he had to scrape my liver to get rid of some of the infection.
    I awoke with a tube protruding from my stomach into to a bulb-shaped drain (called a "Jackson-Pratt drain"), and began the slow process of recovery. My mind was still fogged by the anesthesia and other drugs, and for several hours—in fact, most of the night—I was imagining that I was still in India. But when my mind finally cleared, I felt better, but with a different kind of abdominal pain now—pain from the surgical incisions, and pain and a fever from the internal infection.
    This kind of laparoscopic procedure is often done as a one-day in-n-out surgery. But because of the amount of infection, Dr. Quilici informed me that I would be there at least 3 days.
    I seemed to be recovering well, and within 2 days was beginning to feel a little spry. They gave me solid food, which tasted wonderful. But almost as soon as I finished that first meal, a nurse came in, telling me I was back on a no-food order. She was prepared to take my lunch away, but I had already eaten it. (At least I did get to eat that one meal— the only real meal I had in a week, as it turned out!)
    It seems my blood tests were abnormal, signifying some problem that was making my liver not work, and they wanted to do another procedure to look in and see what was wrong.
stomach    Sparing you any more grisly medical details, I'll just say that the procedure they did (which required a general anesthetic and a long tube down my throat) revealed nothing of substance, except a stray gall stone, which they retrieved. (Also, the power at the hospital failed just as the anesthesiologist was about to administer the anesthetic, delaying the whole procedure for nearly 2 very long hours. Everything seemed to be going wrong at once.)
    That night, however, I went into severe distress. Suddenly I felt a great chest pain and could not inhale. It felt like a lung had collapsed. My fear (and the doctors') was that a blood clot had lodged in my lung. Starting with x-rays, an MRI, and several other kinds of tests, they eliminated all the normal explanations for what was happening. After 14 hours of tests, Dr. Quilici was visibly shaken, and he decided to take me back to surgery and see what the problem was. He informed me that he would try to do it by laparoscopy, but if that did not reveal the problem, he would have to open me up completely.
    Fortunately, the laparoscopy revealed that the problem was really something simple: a blocked Jackson-Pratt drain, and much debris, including more stray gallstones and a lot of infection. But it was serious. By the time they found and fixed the problem, I was almost unable to breathe at all. Dr. Quilici's skillful, quick response saved my life.
    Anyway, that led to an extra week in hospital, and I finally got out yesterday. I'm still very weak, and not totally out of danger, but nonetheless, I am much improved. I hope to get back to my normal activities within a couple of weeks, but I may never get caught up with my personal e-mail. So please forgive me if you wrote and have been awaiting an answer. I'm going to try to start fresh in a couple of weeks, and I will try to keep up with everything then, so if you are still awaiting something important from me, write again in 2-3 weeks.
    For those of you who knew of my sickness and prayed for me, thanks. I hope you'll keep praying for me to recover fully, and I hope to begin regular updates to my Web sites before the end of next week.
    All of this has been a great reminder to me of how fragile life is, and how utterly dependent we are on the tender mercies of God for our moment-by-moment existence.

    In Christ,

    Phil Johnson

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